Hartigan looks ahead after brush with disaster in fire beneath her studio

January 14, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Grace Hartigan had just skirted disaster -- a fire that might have destroyed an estimated $1 million-plus of her art and works by friends such as Willem de Kooning. But as usual she was looking forward, not back. "The first thing an artist wants is to get the studio together and get back to work," she said yesterday.

The internationally recognized artist and Maryland Institute instructor was speaking in the wake of a fire Sunday that had temporarily driven her out of her studio at Broadway and Eastern Avenue. Surveying the cleanup efforts of a platoon of Institute students and faculty members, she observed, "They organized the artist's mind.

"I was not emotionally falling apart, but I didn't know where to begin. They organized all the material in the studio, what to save and what to throw out, and got stuff in boxes to be carted out. When we get the windows in and the electricity on, we'll be ready to go."

Ms. Hartigan, an abstract expressionist painter, has a studio on the third floor of the big, open building; the second floor is used for storage of her work. The fire was largely confined to a first-floor drugstore, but there was some smoke and water damage on the upper floors.

While some furnishings were damaged or destroyed, the art seems largely to have survived unscathed, save for one work in progress that was punctured. "But we don't know about the ones on the racks," she said. "We have to pull everything out and look at it."

The 69-year-old artist was, as usual, cheerful, philosophical and matter-of-fact about what might have happened.

"In the first place," she said, "as a friend in New York reminded me this morning, this is not my life's work. There are only 50 paintings here. Three quarters of my work is elsewhere" -- in collections, museums and galleries.

"I don't want to lose work -- you can't paint it over again -- but I'm healthy and I have quite a way to go. And all this business about being a famous artist and thinking about your art as such precious, great paintings, it's not real. [Art] is what I do. The important thing is to fix the studio up and go on in life."

She has no insurance on the paintings, she said: "It would be prohibitively expensive for me, especially since this is such a fire-prone area. I have $20,000 worth of personal property insurance, and that costs about $1,000 a year."

But she couldn't move the paintings to fireproof storage, she said, because "dealers like to bring clients here and show them work, get the things out and look at them. It wouldn't serve the purpose to have them [elsewhere]."

Nor does she have any intention of moving elsewhere, in or outside of Baltimore. "Oh no. No," she said decisively.

Then, taking the long view, she mused, "I might move back to New York when I'm in my 80s.

"Or 90s."

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